(New York) – Sri Lanka’s new government should advance a reform agenda to address past and ongoing human rights problems in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena. The government has already undertaken important new initiatives, such as reviewing cases of detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, lifting restrictions on media reporting, ending Internet censorship, and removing nongovernmental organizations from Defense Ministry oversight.  

However, many important human rights concerns still need to be addressed. Among them are the use of torture by police, the protection of minority communities, the independence of government oversight committees, and the repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Holding accountable those responsible on both sides for violations of international law during Sri Lanka’s long civil war is crucial for the country’s future, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Sirisena has an important opportunity to right the wrongs of his predecessor,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s strong initial steps should be followed by lasting measures to re-establish Sri Lanka as a rights-respecting democracy.”

The Sri Lankan police routinely torture and ill-treat criminal suspects taken into custody.  The government should act to eliminate the use of torture against detainees and improve redress mechanisms for victims.

During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka’s minority communities increasingly came under threats and violence instigated by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups. While the new president in several speeches has acknowledged the government’s failure to act on behalf of these minority groups, more needs to be done to alleviate their concerns. The government should fully investigate and appropriately prosecute members of sectarian groups for inciting communal violence, as well as police who failed to stop such crimes.

The number of people arbitrarily detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act is unknown, and many of their families are unaware of their fate or whereabouts. In addition to releasing or charging those detained, the government should promptly act to repeal the law, which has long underpinned widespread human rights violations, particularly against ethnic Tamils.

On accountability for wartime abuses, the decision of the United Nations to postpone the release of its investigation into violations of international law in Sri Lanka until September 2015 provides the government an opportunity to put into place an effective mechanism with a significant international component. Previous government accountability mechanisms have been impaired by harassment, threats and violence against witnesses and judges. The best way to address this problem would be to create a combined international and domestic court similar to the successful hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Human Rights Watch said.

“Creating a predominant international presence in a special Sri Lankan court would reduce the scope for interference against national judges and prosecutors,” Adams said. “A strong hybrid court would lend credibility and independence to the proceedings that purely domestic proceedings may lack.”